Tag Archives: Greek tragedy

Review of “Tragedy and Feminism” – Victoria Wohl

pages 145-160 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

Feminism’s Love-Hate Relationship with Tragedy

“Tragedy,” writes Wohl, “is the humanist genre par excellence, treating the questions that seem most profoundly to define mankind.” And therein lies a problem. How much do women partake in the world of mankind? On the one hand, Greek tragedy is filled with powerful and dynamic female characters: Clytemnestra in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Medea in Euripides’ Medea, to name a few. But on the other hand, feminist scholars have been suspicious that tragedy builds up the female only to demolish her in the face of the male. The dramatic arc in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon-Libation Bearers-Eumenides trilogy–otherwise called The Oresteia–begins, for example, begins with the rule of woman and ends with the rule of man.

In addition to male writers’ questionable motives for creating powerful female characters, Wohl finds another facet of Greek tragedy disturbing. Greek tragedy, as a literary artifact of the ancient world, preserves the misogyny prevalent in a society where women could not vote, could not own property, could not represent themselves in court, were relegated inside the household, could not perform in the theatre, and could not even attend the theatre as spectators (this last point is a matter of debate). As an artifact of a misogynist society, characters in Attic tragedy frequently voice sexist musings, such as when Jason in Medea says: “It would be better if men found another way to bear children and there were no race of women.”

Because of the power imbalance between the male and the female, because tragedy was a mouthpiece of male playwrights, and because tragedy gives voice to the embedded misogyny of fifth century Athens, feminist critics such as Wohl have a love-hate relationship with tragedy. On one hand, tragedy, as the humanist genre par excellence which examines the hard-hitting questions that define mankind, is most beautiful. But as the mouthpiece of misogyny, tragedy is most ugly.

First Wave Feminism in Greek Tragedy

For a long time, writes Wohl, the scholarly tradition ignored the role of women in classical antiquity. That all changed in 1975 with Sarah Pomeroy’s book Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. Pomeroy looked to tragedy as a source of information about how women lived. Her groundbreaking book launched the first wave of feminism in Greek tragedy.

First wave feminism gave priority to Euripides’ plays. Euripides had a reputation for allowing his female characters to speak freely. In the comic playwright Aristophanes’ play Frogs, for example, the fictional character Euripides claims that he gave women a voice in his plays. Aeschylus and Sophocles were less useful.

The aim of first wave feminism was to extract the lives of real women from the tragic text. It is an empiricist approach that considered that the lives of real women are knowable. In first wave feminism, the female character was considered a sign that, properly decoded by a scholar, could shed light on women’s lives in antiquity. What did first wave feminism discover about real woman’s lives? It discovered that the freedoms women enjoyed differed city to city. Women did better in Sparta than Athens (ever notice that many of the powerful female protagonists in tragedy are, like Medea, foreigners?). And it discovered that in the higher social classes, a woman who was a whore may have had more freedom than a freeborn wife.

Second Wave of Feminism in Greek Tragedy

At some point, the authority of the author as a creator of meaning gave way to the view that the author does not create meaning. The creation of meaning became an interpretive act that the reader or theatregoer was responsible for. Roland Barthes’ 1967 essay “The Death of the Author” kicked off this view. If the author was not responsible for the message and the meaning of the text, it becomes harder to extrapolate the lives of real women on Euripides’ authority: after the death of the author, Euripides had no authority. A new approach was required.

The second wave of feminism began with Helene Foley’s 1981 article: “The Conception of Women in Athenian Drama.” Instead of extrapolating the lives of real women from the text, second wave feminists explored the cultural concept of woman. This was the new approach after the death of the author, an approach where, as Foley writes: “The Athenian audience must have brought to their experience of the remarkable women of drama a way of understanding these characters which grew out of their psychological, religious, political, and social lives and problems.” The writer-creator was dead. The reader-interpreter is born.

By exploring the representation of woman in tragedy, second wave feminists learned about the society that created such characters. The Clytemnestras and Medeas, they concluded, were the creations of a deeply misogynistic society where the female was associated with disorder and the male with order. Tragedy seemed to say that, for a world to arise and to found civilization, the male must tame the female.

Second wave feminism also added an extra dimension to interpretation. While female characters in first wave feminism were considered to be signs of the lives of real women, second wave feminism added the notion that female characters could be signs as well as generators of signs. Mind you, they were still stuck in androcentric texts written by male playwrights, but this addition increased the range and depth of study, as it brought Aeschylus and Sophocles back into the fold. Because female characters spoke with less freedom in Aeschylus and Sophocles, first wave feminism had little use for either of them. They preferred Euripides. But when you consider that Aeschylus and Sophocles were two of the three pieces of “the big three,” it is a grievous loss. Second wave feminism welcomed back Aeschylus and Sophocles.

By allowing female characters to function as a generator of signs allowed feminists to study captivating female characters such as Clytemnestra. Second wave feminists such as Froma Zeitlin looked at how attention to fictional female characters within tragedy can tell us about the world of tragedy. Zeitlin found, for example, that empowered female characters such as Clytemnestra could generate signs. Clytemnestra is saying something by playing with feminine tropes–such as pouring a hot bath–when she destroys Agamemnon. Generating signs is a itself a sign of will. Although Clytemnestra generates signs, she never gets what she wants: the tragedy isn’t written around her. She could be the star. But she is only a blocker character. A male character, Orestes, is the star. Conclusion? Women are prominent in tragedy not for the sake of woman, but to illuminate the male world.

Third Wave of Feminism in Greek Tragedy

If first wave feminism tells us about the lives of real woman and second wave feminism tell us about the lives of women within tragedy, what does third wave feminist research tell us? Hint: do you remember the 1987 Oliver Stone movie Wall Street? Soon after the movie came out, if you went down to the trading floor, you’d see the brokers wearing suspenders. The funny thing is that they didn’t wear suspenders before the movie came out. What happened? Life imitates art is what happened. Third wave feminism’s breakthrough was the realization that the representation of women on the stage shapes the lives of women off the stage.

Third wave feminists include Victoria Wohl herself and scholars such as Barbara Goff (author of The Noose of Words: Readings of Desire, Violence, and Language in Euripides’ Hippolytus and History, Tragedy, Theory: Dialogues on Athenian Drama) and Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz (author of Anxiety Veiled: Euripides and the Traffic of Women and Feminist Theory and the Classics). While third wave feminists agree that tragedy shapes culture and society, they disagree on tragedy’s directive in doing so.

The disagreement between third wave feminists can be broken down into two competing camps: the optimists and the pessimists. The optimists, such as Wohl, believe that feminine resistance in Greek tragedy accelerates progressive social change. “By giving a public voice to those who were normally silent in the political arena,” writes Foley, “tragedy can open fresh perspectives on and restore some balance to a civic life and dialogue otherwise dominated by citizen males.” Pessimists such as Rabinowitz, however, find that heroines’ brief moments of glory reinforce male control over women. The function of tragedy, according to the pessimists, is to reinforce the status quo of male control of the female.

Feminism and the Risk Theatre Theory of Tragedy

Is tragedy propaganda reinforcing the status quo? Or is tragedy revolution, the spark that ignites change? I don’t think dramatists in fifth century Athens, when they were writing tragedy, were thinking: “How can I create a play to reinforce male dominion over woman?” If they did, their plays would constitute propaganda. Propaganda plays fail to entertain. Anyone who thinks a propaganda play can be successful may want to look at Mussato’s Ecerinis. His tragedy schools theatregoers on the dangers of tyrants. It is not very good. Greek tragedy, however, is very good. For this reason, I don’t think fifth century dramatists were thinking: “How can I uphold the misogynistic status quo in my play?” as they wrote their plays. If they had this thought in mind, they would have written poor plays.

Was tragedy, then, revolution, a firebrand to ignite change? Tragedy was a civic festival sponsored by the city to celebrate the city. As one of Athens’ largest and most prestigious festivals, it would be an odd place to incite revolution. For this reason, I don’t think dramatists in fifth century Athens, when they were writing tragedy, were thinking: “How can I give a public voice to those who are normally silent?” If they had this thought in mind, they city would likely have removed their funding.

If they were neither reinforcing the status quo nor giving voice to the oppressed, what were the tragedians aiming to achieve when they wrote tragedy? According to my risk theatre theory of tragedy, when playwrights wrote plays, they were thinking: “How can I create the most thrilling play, one that will wow the audiences?” To create the most thrilling play, they made risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action. They chose risk because risk triggers the unexpected outcomes that wowed audiences. So Euripides tells us in the concluding lines of many of his plays:

What heaven sends has many shapes, and many things the gods accomplish against our expectation. What men look for is not brought to pass, but a god finds a way to achieve the unexpected. Such was the outcome of this story.

Because there were two types of risk–upside and downside–two types of dramatists arose. The ones who loved to dramatize downside risk became known as tragedians. And the ones who loved to dramatize upside risk became known as comedians. But whatever type of dramatist you became, you explored risk because risk is inherently dramatic. Risk triggers what the audience expects, namely, the unexpected ending.

To thrill audiences, tragedians would place society’s most sanctified values at risk. “What would happen,” they asked, “if we explode society’s strongest bonds?” “What would happen,” they asked, “if we show how love makes us most vulnerable to hurt, destruction, and grief?” As tragedians formulated their questions, they found a fertile ground in the tensions between men and women. To exploit the full dramatic potential of these tensions, tragedians needed women who could go toe to toe with the men. In a way, because of fifth century prejudices against women, for women to be able to go head to head with men, the women of tragedy had to be better and more talented than their male counterparts. In turn, the men in tragedy are often less clever and capable, as they have the tailwind of an androcentric society to prop them up.

In a risk theatre feminist reading, it is out of dramatic necessity, not a benevolent desire to improve women’s conditions or a malevolent desire to oppress women, that we have dynamic characters such as Clytemnestra, Medea, and Phaedra. What do you get when you put together powerhouse female characters with hotheaded male characters? You get unexpected endings. It is this unexpected ending that drew audiences back to tragedy again and again. Powerful female characters, in this light, are born out of dramatic necessity, a literary artifact.

That we have powerhouse female characters, of course, does not mean that women on stage were men’s equals. On stage, women are equal to men in their desire, but not in their power. The power disparity between the male and the female is not unlike the difference in power between mortals and immortals, another fertile source of inspiration for tragedians. Consider this beautiful passage from Homer’s Iliad where the god Apollo reminds the mortal Achilles that man is not god:

Then Phoebus Apollo spoke to the son of Peleus saying, “Why, son of Peleus, do you, who are but man, give chase to me who am immortal? Have you not yet found out that it is a god whom you pursue so furiously? You did not harass the Trojans whom you had routed, and now they are within their walls, while you have been decoyed hither away from them. Me you cannot kill, for death can take no hold upon me.” 

Achilles was greatly angered and said, “You have baulked me, Far-Darter, most malicious of all gods, and have drawn me away from the wall, where many another man would have bitten the dust ere he got within Ilius; you have robbed me of great glory and have saved the Trojans at no risk to yourself, for you have nothing to fear, but I would indeed have my revenge if it were in my power to do so.” 

A few things are telling in Achilles’ response. To Achilles, the difference between mortals and immortals isn’t that one is wiser or better looking or longer lasting. The difference, to Achilles, is only in the quanta of power they wield: “I would indeed have my revenge,” says Achilles, “if it were in my power to do so.” The difference between mortals and immortals does not lie in their physical or mental qualities, nor in their aspirations, dreams, and desires. The difference is that one has more power than the other.

In Achilles’ interaction with Apollo, he plays the female: he is mortal, Apollo is immortal. If we apply Achilles’ rebuke to Apollo to the dynamic between males and females, what we get is the female saying to the male: “I would have my way, if it were in my power to do so.” I think this is what we get in tragedy. Just like Achilles in the face of Apollo, the female is, in tragedy, everything the equal to the male, except in power. In all her physical and mental qualities, and also in her aspirations, dreams, and desires, the female is the male’s equal. In this way, tragedy was a progressive art. But it was not progressive for the sake of women. It was progressive because it made for a more entertaining play.

A feminist risk theatre reading of tragedy opens the doors to new avenues of research. Does the changing power differential between men and women from Aeschylus to Sophocles and Euripides signify a change between men and women in the real world? Does the power disequilibrium between mortals and immortals shed light on the disequilibrium between men and women in fifth century Athens? What happens when the power differential between mortals and immortals is mapped onto the relationships between men and women?  And what about the immortals themselves?–how is gender constructed in high Olympus? If, as Euripides says, the function of tragedy is to dramatize unexpected outcomes, how do playwrights exploit the tensions between men and women to supercharge risk? A ton of possibilities emerges from a feminist risk theatre reading of tragedy.

The Next Wave of Feminism in Tragedy

What’s next in feminist philology? If first wave feminism was to explore the lives of real women, second wave feminism to explore the “lives” of women in the text, and third wave feminism to explore the influence the text has on reality, perhaps fourth wave feminism will be to explore what our changing interpretations of women in antiquity say about us ourselves in modernity? In critiquing misogyny and bad practises in the ancient world, perhaps we also expose some of our own underlying deficiencies? If history is any indication, some of our best and most progressive ideas will be judged quite harshly in the coming centuries, if not sooner. Like in theatre, unintended consequences attend the most noble intentions.

One thing that Wohl points out is that, no matter the stature of women in the ancient play, she still exists in an androcentric text written by a male author. With playwright competitions such as the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition (https://risktheatre.com/), we are seeing more and more new tragedies being written by female tragedians. In 2020, 89 male playwrights and 46 female playwrights entered. Although two-thirds of the entries this year were by male playwrights, this is much better than antiquity where 100% of the surviving plays are by male playwrights. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see a bold new 21st century tragedy with powerful and dynamic male and female characters interacting within a gynocentric instead of an androcentric text? And what fun that would be for feminist scholars to critique. Soon.

Author Blurb

Victoria Wohl is Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Toronto. She is the author of Intimate Commerce: Exchange, Gender, and Subjectivity in Greek Tragedy (1998) and Love Among the Ruins: The Erotics of Democracy in Classical Athens (2003).

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.

Review of “Tragedy and Materialist Thought” – Hugh Grady

pages 128-144 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

What is Grady’s Materialism?

Grady comes from a line of critics that include Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton. Like Williams and Eagleton, he approaches tragedy from a political perspective. “Materialism” to Grady is a combination of three strands of theory that began in the 1980s: American new historicism, British cultural materialism, and international feminism. Marx and Engels themselves used the term “materialism” to describe their method of analysis, and, in the end, these three strands can be traced back to the founders of Marxism. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the definition of “dialectical materialism” as:

The Marxist theory of political and historical events as due to the conflict of social forces caused by humans’ material needs and interpretable as a series of contradictions and their solutions.

In this article, Grady argues that materialists who deny that tragedy has a universal meaning go too far. Materialists have denied the view that tragedy has an unchanging and static form because such as view smacks of right wing conservative political views. Materialists, by definition, espouse left wing Marxist political views. Materialists who deny tragedy’s universal significance, argues Grady, do disservices to the Left, as it surrenders the art of tragedy to the Right. If materialists can allow that tragedy from Aeschylus to O’Neill has a universal function, the Left can wrest the discourse of tragedy back from the Right. Underlying Grady’s view is the belief that materialist thought can decode tragedy’s secrets:

Materialist thought, I believe, if it is redirected, is a major, probably the major vehicle through which to rethink tragedy for the twenty-first century.

If tragedy does not have a universal significance, it at least appears to have a transhistorical dimension: it springs up in fifth century Athens, in the English Renaissance, in the neoclassical French writers, the German romantics, and finally arrived in America with Miller and O’Neill. How can materialism, which denies tragedy’s universal significance, take into account tragedy’s transhistorical dimension? Grady grapples with this question in this article.

Look to Hegel

If Marx’ struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is Hegel made political, then perhaps there is also some kind of universal, transhistorical, and Hegelian dynamic at play in tragedy. Or so Grady argues. Grady finds this dynamic in tragedy in the collision between two problematic forms of rationality. Hegel’s model of synthesis and antithesis provides the bridge for the Left to incorporate tragedy’s transhistorical dimension into a new theory or materialism.

Grady illustrates Hegelian dialectic at work in tragedy through Shakespeare’s King Lear:

The play seems to follow a more Hegelian pattern, posing two problematic forms of rationality against each other, enacting the defeat of tradition by modernizing instrumental reason, only to show the subsequent collapse of instrumental reason. At the end of King Lear, especially, the audience is teased, made to imagine hope and despair, as Cordelia and Lear appear now to have lived, now to have died. The space is created for a new form of rationality, which would be neither of the other two. But the space is, as it were, blank, not filled in, symbolized but not enunciated in discourse. In short, the dialectic is a negative one, never arriving at a final synthesis, but certainly going beyond its two previous stages.

To Grady, when this Hegelian dialectic plays out at critical junctures in history, tragedy becomes possible. In fifth century Athens, as mythos (stories) gave way to logos (rhetoric), tragedy became possible. In the English Renaissance, as instrumental reason was replacing the Great Chain of Being, tragedy became possible.

Grady’s argument here is of interest, as he arrives at roughly Nietzsche’s position on the birth of tragedy through Hegel, an avenue that Nietzsche would not have taken. It appears in scholarship that you can arrive to the same place by different avenues.

Materialist Thought and Tragedy

For Grady, tragedy arises during a cultural and political changing of the guard. In fifth century Athens, traditional wisdom was giving way to logic and rhetoric. In Renaissance England, feudalism was giving way to modernity. And in our own time, religion is giving way to a post-religious society.

When this cultural sea change occurs, the definition of good and evil is blurred. In a materialist interpretation, tragedy, says Grady, helps us “to assess and understand good and evil in a post-traditional world.” Tragedy, in materialist thought, dramatizes how difficult it is to stand upon the firm ground of good and evil, right and wrong. By problematizing morality, tragedy invites us to ponder how societal changes impact traditional moralities. When we revaluate all values, tragedy is there, dramatizing, in a Hegelian dialectic, the struggle between old and new.

First Question for Bushnell

This Blackwell edition, being a guide for students and available “on the desk of every reference librarian at the college and university level” would surely present a balanced perspective to students? So far, the book chapters have been left leaning. Grady’s article, for example, debunks right wing perspectives. But the attacks are directed to a book over a hundred years old and already falling into discredit by the 1950s. I would be interested in seeing a more balanced perspective, with some contrasting viewpoints of tragedy from the right. My question for Bushnell: why does this companion to tragedy give voice to the left and not the right?

First Question for Grady

Grady shows how materialism offers a superior way of looking at tragedy and debunks conservative points of view. On the materialist side he primarily cites: Michel Foucault (The Order of Things 1966), Raymond Williams (Modern Tragedy 1966), Jonathan Dollimore (Radical Tragedy 1989), and Terry Eagleton (Sweet Violence 2003). On the conservative side, he has A. C. Bradley (Shakespearean Tragedy 1904) and E. M. W. Tillyard (no specific work, but was active in the 1940s and 50s). The conservatives hold that tragic heroes, because human nature is everlasting and unchanging, fall victim, over and over again, to an equally everlasting and unchanging idea of evil. When heroes go to the dark side, they upset the play’s internal moral order.

The materialist view denies all this because, first of all, human behaviour is a product of social structure. Nurture over nature. Because human behaviour is a product of society, evil likewise, far from being fixed, changes over time. What is more, tragedies, argues Grady, dramatize the changing of the guard, insofar as moral orders are concerned. The two great flowerings of tragedy (5th century Athens and Renaissance England) both occur in ages where one moral code was giving way to the next.

My first question for Grady: why not pit Eagleton and the other materialists against more recent conservative adversaries? Grady pits Foucault (1966), Williams (1966), Dollimore (1989), and Eagleton (2003) against E. M. W Tillyard (who, as he admits, does not directly write about tragedy) and A. C. Bradley, a bag of bones who wrote Shakespearean Tragedy in 1904. The tale of the tape shows a heavyweight pitted against a dead guy. I mean, who’s going to win? And, if more recent conservative critics are nowhere to be found, then the question becomes: is the bogeyman of conservative criticism is a straw man?

Second Question for Grady

To Grady, tragedy is about morality. If you’re on the left, tragedy dramatizes the clash between socially constructed moral values (the correct view). If you’re on the right, tragedy dramatizes the clash between everlasting and metaphysical moral values (the incorrect view, as good and evil are transient social constructs). If you don’t believe tragedy is about morality, you don’t get it. Chaucer, for example, writes that tragedy dramatizes “the fickleness of fortune” in the world. Chaucer, according to Grady, doesn’t get tragedy because the medieval world had separated common human experience from the misfortune of the great. I would trust, however, the instincts of Chaucer–a preeminent artist–over the instincts of an academic. Perhaps Chaucer “gets” tragedy and it is the academics who do not “get” it?

My second question for Grady is: what if tragedy is not about morality? What if both the right and the left are mistaken? What if there’s a new paradigm?–instead of morality, risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action in tragedy. This is the point I argue in my 2019 book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected.

In my reading, each dramatic act of tragedy is a gambling act. Tragedy makes risk palpable. By the high stakes action, heroes trigger unexpected outcomes. By dramatizing low-probability, high-consequence outcomes, tragedy is a theatre of risk. This theatre of risk entertains by showcasing the impact of the highly improbable. These risk acts can be good or bad, but the point is not that they are good or evil, but that they are high risk gambles that trigger unexpected outcomes.

Tragedy has long been an intersection point for human intention and chance outcomes. For some reason, scholars have passed this over. When Chaucer and others point to chance, they are pooh-poohed. Let’s see what the tragedies actually say. In the ending to many of Euripides’ plays, Euripides has the chorus tell the audience that the point of tragedy is to dramatize the unexpected. Take the ending of Bacchae:

What heaven sends has many shapes, and many things the gods accomplish against our expectation. What men look for is not brought to pass, but a god finds a way to achieve the unexpected. Such was the outcome of this story.

Then compare this to Chaucer’s understanding of tragedy, taken from the Monk’s tale of the tragedy of Croesus:

Thus hanged at last was Croesus the proud king,

His royal throne to him of no avail.

Tragedy is no other kind of thing,

Nor can lament in singing nor bewail,

Except that Fortune ever will assail

With unexpected stroke the realms that are proud;

For when men trust in her, then will she fail

And cover up her bright face with a cloud.

And then look at the ending of Shakespeare’s Hamlet as Horatio sums up the action:

And let me speak to th’ yet unknowing world

How these things came about. So shall you hear

Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,

Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,

Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,

And, in this upshot, purposes mistook

Fall’n on th’inventors’ heads. All this can I

Truly deliver.

Professors and philosophers enjoy looking at moral issues. But playwrights are not professors and philosophers. Playwrights, I think, are primarily concerned with writing an exciting play. And risk, rather than morality, is the dramatic fulcrum because risk is inherently dramatic. Risk is inherently dramatic because it triggers the unexpected ending. As we can see from the passages from as varied sources as Euripides, Chaucer, and Shakespeare, risk and the unexpected is a cornerstone of tragic writing.

Are playwrights thinking about risk and exciting plays, or are they thinking about the Hegelian dialectic and how instrumental reason clashes with tradition as they write their plays? Risk theatre, I think, presents a new and welcome apolitical and amoral interpretation of tragedy, and one grounded in the process of playwriting, which, first and foremost, strives to create a captivating play that has the audience on the edge of the seat.

Third Question for Grady (and also Raymond Williams)

Grady writes:

Tragedy is a concept that has been falsely universalized over and over in its long critical history, both in its guise of designating a particular set of perceptions and feelings and in naming a literary genre of differing times and places. Raymond Williams eloquently wrote on this issue, “Tragedy is … not a single and permanent kind of fact, but a series of experiences and conventions and institutions.”

My question for Grady (and Williams), is whether they would say the same thing about comedy, philosophy, and history. Like tragedy, these three other genres also came to us from ancient Greece. Certainly tragedy, comedy, history, and philosophy are products of the time: English Renaissance tragedy is not modern tragedy. But when authors write comedy, philosophy, history, or tragedy, do they not take part in the conversation and tradition of that genre as well? If there is nothing universal about tragedy, how could, say, Anouilh rewrite Oedipus (The Infernal Machine) in the twentieth century? Just as comedy is about laughs and the us/them mentality, philosophy is about categorizing and understanding nature with the categories of the mind, and history is an inquiry into an event, it strikes me that one should be able to look at tragedy from Aeschylus to O’Neill and identify a common denominator because we identify all these works as tragedy.

Grady proposes a solution: “Tragedy, we might say, is universal in its exploration of human suffering.” But, what if, instead, a more primary consideration is that tragedy is universal in its exploration of downside risk? The suffering is secondary, and risk is primary. Most playwrights (unless it is Howard Barker) do not start by saying: “I want to make characters suffer,” but rather “I want to thrill audiences by dramatizing the impact of downside risk, of how, when the hero least expects, Birnam Wood comes to high Dunsinane Hill.” Risk is primary; suffering is secondary.

Fourth Question for Grady

Grady debunks the notion that tragedy presents a moral world order by drawing attention to Nietzsche:

Tragedy reveals the disorder inherent in human nature underneath the ego’s Apollonian appearances. This is particularly true of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, with its critique of Apollonian rationality and its assertion of the reality of power and desire.

Nietzsche did not give priority to either the order affirming Apollonian or the order denying Dionysian: both are parts of a larger whole. So, I would ask Grady why he gives priority to Nietzsche’s Dionysian over the Apollonian. Both the Apollonian and the Dionysian are world orders, albeit incomplete. It is in their clash that the true nature of reality emerges.

Fifth Question for Grady

Grady see tragedy as the product of colliding and problematic rationalities. When a newfangled instrumental reason collides with traditional reason, tragedy emerges. Grady argues that tragedy was popular in fifth century Athens and Renaissance England because, in both these time periods, a new instrumental reason was displacing the old traditions (in Athens it was the rise of rhetoric and in Renaissance England the possibility of post-religious society).

My question to Grady: if it is true that tragedy arises during a societal changing of the guard, then why, in the 2600 years from the origin of tragedy to today we only have two great flowerings of tragedy? Is Grady’s theory of tragedy statistically robust? Perhaps it is if in the last 2600 years there has only been two major paradigm shifts. That cannot be true by any stretch of the imagination. For Grady’s argument to hold, he would also have to explain why, during other sea changes in society–of which there have been many in the last two millennia–tragedy did not arise.

First Question for Bradley and Tillyard

Grady writes that it was supposed that Shakespeare was a traditionalist since Bradley and Tillyard demonstrated that the malicious characters in Jacobean tragedy practised instrumental reason, the rationality of the voices clamouring for change. My question for Bradley and Tillyard: why is it that we must fight over the classics to own them and control them? This scholarly wrangling reminds of how, back in the old day they used to fight over the bodies of the saints. By possessing such artifacts, the possessors could benefit themselves and hinder enemies. Sophocles’ play Oedipus at Colonus, for example, dramatizes the fight over Oedipus’ corpse.

Scholars fight over the right to claim the classic texts. While most of us no longer fight over saints’ bones and ancient relics, it surprises me, in this so-called enlightened age, how we continue the same sort of behaviour fighting over the classics like they were the bones of old saints. Playwrights, most of the time, are thinking: “How can I create an entertaining play that will thrill all sorts of audiences?” rather than “How can I demonstrate the superiority of traditional or avant-garde rationalities?” Scholars, by ascribing traditionalist or liberal viewpoints to playwrights, turn playwrights into versions of themselves.

A playwright who makes risk the fulcrum of the action is not a priest who makes morality the fulcrum of the action. And a playwright who presents fruitfully ambiguous points of view is not an academic who breaks down these viewpoints into definitive for/against positions (which often coincide with their own views). Playwrights are, first and foremost, entertainers. They are aiming to tell a good story, that is all.

First Question for Raymond Williams

Scholars have questioned why tragedy could not arise in the Middle Ages, but had to wait until the early modern period of Shakespeare’s time. They frequently cite the Monk’s tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to support how people just didn’t get tragedy in the Middle Ages.

In this article, Grady talks about how tragedy critic Williams explains the failure of tragedy to emerge in the Middle Ages and the emergence of tragedy in the early modern period. Grady quotes Williams as saying: “The dissolution of the feudal world allows tragedy to reunite what the medieval era had separated, common human misfortune and the misfortune of the great.”

I just happen to be reading the quintessential work of literature in the Middle Ages: the very same Canterbury Tales by Chaucer. And, as if by some coincidence, the same day I was reading the passage from Williams, I read this passage from the Knight’s tale:

Thus man and woman also, foe and friend,

In either term, in youth or else in age,

Must die, the king as truly as the page;

One in his bed, and one in the deep sea,

One in their open field, their ends agree.

There is no help; we go the common way.

All things must die, it is but truth to say.

It cannot profit any soul alive

Against this everlasting law to strive.

Having read this passage in the Knight’s tale, I would like to ask Williams who his authority is that says in the Middle Ages that common human misfortune is in a different category than the suffering of the masters of the universe.

Author Blurb

Hugh Grady is Professor of English at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pennsylvania. He is author of The Modernist Shakespeare: Critical Texts in a Material World (1991), Shakespeare’s Universal Wolf: Studies in Early Modern Reification (1996), and Shakespeare Machiavelli and Montaigne: Power and Subjectivity from “Richard II” to “Hamlet” (2002). He is editor of Shakespeare and Modernity: From Early Modern to Millennium (2000) and co-editor (with Terence Hawkes) of Presentist Shakespeares (2007). His newest book is Shakespeare and Impure Aesthetics (2009).

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

Review of “Tragedy and City” – Deborah Boedeker and Kurt Raaflaub

pages 109-127 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

Author(s) Blurb

Deborah Boedeker is Professor of Classics at Brown University. Her research focuses on archaic and classical Greek religion, poetry, historiography, and especially the confluences among these areas. Recent publications include essays on Euripides, Herodotus, Simonides, and Sappho, as well as a number of edited volumes, including Democracy, Empire, and the Arts in Fifth-Century Athens (1998, with Kurt A. Raaflaub) and The New Simonides: Contexts of Praise and Desire (2001, with David Sider).

Kurt Raaflaub is David Herlihy University Professor, Professor of Classics and History, and Director of the Program in Ancient Studies at Brown University. His main areas of interests are the social, political, and intellectual history of archaic and classical Greece and the Roman Republic. His most recent publications include The Discovery of Freedom in Ancient Greece (2004), an edited volume of War and Peace in the Ancient World (2007), with Josiah Ober and Robert Wallace. He is currently working on a history of early Greek political thought in its Mediterranean context.

“Tragedy and City”

In the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century, political interpretations of Greek tragedy were the rage. Aeschylus’ tragedy Suppliants (from 462 BC and set in Argos) says something, scholars argued, about Athens’ political ties with Argos. Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus rex (set during a plague in Thebes) says something, scholars argued, about the plague of 430 BC in Athens “The character Oedipus,” they said, “is based on the Athenian statesman Pericles.” Some scholars went so far as to claim that tragedians would advocate specific political policies through their plays.

In this article, Boedeker and Raaflaub argue that these political interpretations derive their authority from the Athenian comic poet Aristophanes’ 405 BC hit Frogs. In Frogs, the god Dionysus goes down to Hades to bring back a tragic poet to save the city: “I came down here for a poet … so that the city may survive and keep presenting its choral festivals. So whichever of you is going to give the city some good advice, that’s the one I think I will bring back.” By “whichever of you,” Dionysus refers to Aeschylus and Euripides, who proceed to argue over who benefitted Athens more (Sophocles is also in Hades at this point, but the competition is beneath his dignity). Scholars cite this duel as evidence of tragedy’s political function.

While allowing that tragedy has a civic function, Boedeker and Raaflaub suggest a middle ground in this article:

We maintain [that] the plays generally were not created to support or oppose a specific person, policy, or decision. Whatever he may have thought personally about such issues, in our judgment Aeschylus’ purpose in Eumenides was not primarily to recommend a treaty with Argos [in Suppliants] or the restoration of the Areopagus Council’s powers [in Eumenides].

Plays would explore political themes, but would stop short of advocating one standpoint over another. A good example Boedeker and Raaflaub cite is Aeschylus’ tragedy Persians. The tragedy dramatizes the aftereffects of the Battle of Salamis from the Persian perspective: it is a grievous loss. The cause of the loss is Xerxes’ hubris in bridging the Hellespont to join Asia and Europe, two land masses nature had ordained in her unwritten laws to keep apart. While the play is conventionally read as a patriotic piece celebrating Athens’ victory, Boedeker and Raaflaub ask: does the play have a tacit political purpose? In 472 BC, Athens was trespassing in the other direction into Asia, attempting to take control of the Anatolian coast. The play, while not advocating foreign policy, asks the Athenians to consider their actions in light of Xerxes’ trespass in a subtle, unspoken manner.

The Process of Artistic Creation

Classicists are gifted in analysis. They come up with their conclusions and support their arguments after long and careful deliberation. They pick their words carefully and precisely. When they see artists use political terms or language in their works, classicists ascribe to the artists this same level of analysis and precision. If a poet, for example, writes about a political decree, the poet must have a position on what it takes to formulate decrees. If the poet writes about decrees, the poet has thought about decrees the same way a classicist would have, were the classicist to have published an article on decrees. Nothing is chance. Innuendoes in the text are deliberate. But is this the case?

What Boedeker and Raaflaub argue, and I think that it is an excellent point, is that this isn’t necessarily the case. Why? The answer is simple: poets and creative writers are not classicists. In fact, poets and creative writers are quite the opposite. They write under inspiration from the Muses. Some of the time, the idea comes to the artists so quick that they can’t jot it down fast enough, and what they’ve left unwritten is forgotten. Inspiration is like that dream you had this morning when you said: “That was so vivid, I will never forget it.”

But then, why do the writers and poets so frequently talk about politics or contemporary events? The reason is that it’s in the air. As they work on their creations, the things they hear on the streets, in the barbershops, and at the markets get incorporated into their works. In addition to asking classicists and philosophers what works of art mean, we can also ask the artists how they create. This gives us a valuable second opinion. In a 2017 interview with Bill Flanagan, artist Bob Dylan talks about how he incorporates everyday experiences into his works:

You could have some monstrous vision, or a perplexing idea that you can’t quite get down, can’t handle the theme. But then you’ll see a newspaper clipping or a billboard sign, or a paragraph from an old Dickens novel, or you’ll hear some line from another song, or something you might overhear somebody say just might be something in your mind that you didn’t know you remembered. That will give you the point of approach and specific details. It’s like you’re sleepwalking, not searching or seeking; things are transmitted to you.

Are tragedians writing plays with hidden political meanings for future classicists to examine? Dylan also offers scholars a word of warning in his 2016 Nobel Prize speech:

I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”

This goes to show, if you ask a classicist whether a play has a political dimension, the classicist will answer as though the playwright were a classicist. But if you ask an artist if a play has a political dimension, the playwright might answer different.

The moral of this story is that we measure others with the same scales we measure ourselves. This works if “We” is equal to “Them.” But if it is “Us” and “Them,” then, when we measure them as if they were us, misunderstandings arise. Perhaps what we really need is a classicist who is also an artist.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

PS this has been a fun review to write: I was a student of both Boedeker and Raaflaub (a husband and wife team), and, additionally had a chance to help TA one of Raaflaub’s Roman History classes. What an amazing experience those Brown years were. The glory days where I stood shoulder to shoulder with the giants. Sometimes I have to shake my head to believe I was actually there, it was so much like a dream.

Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, Probability, and a New Theory of Tragedy

CAMWS Classical Association of Middle West and South Presentation

116th Virtual Annual Meeting

May 26-30, 2020

Edwin Wong

Thursday, May 28 Session 10, Section A: Greek Drama 4

Abstract Link: https://camws.org/sites/default/files/meeting2020/abstracts/2028AeschylusSeven.pdf

Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, Probability, and a New Theory of Tragedy

I’d like to tell you about my new theory of tragedy called “risk theatre.” In risk theatre, risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. To illustrate it, I’ll use a play full of gambling references and high-risk action: Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes.

Drama, I argue, dramatizes risk. Comedy dramatizes upside risk. Tragedy dramatizes downside risk. Tragic heroes are gamblers who gamble with something other than money. They make delirious bets that trigger devastating low-probability, high-consequence outcomes. Audiences ask: “How did such a good bet go awry?”

To begin a risk theatre read, look for a bet where much is at stake. High stakes entertain. When you go to the casino, you don’t go to watch nickel and dime bets. You go to watch the heroes at the no-limit tables who lay down dignity, honour, or compassion, the milk of human kindness. You go to experience the emotions of anticipation and apprehension: anticipation for the magnitude of their wagers and apprehension for how they blow up. Even though heroes are smart, swift, and well-accoutered, they lose all. To see how they had every expectation of being crowned the ivy, yet lose all evokes wonder.

What’s the bet in Seven? As civil war rages, Eteocles bets the gods are on his side. It’s a high-risk bet, as Thebes’ existence hangs on the line. It’s a good bet, as he’s defending native shrines from foreign aggressors. Why wouldn’t the gods be on his side?

How will Eteocles know the gods are on his side? In this play, seven attacking captains are posted by lot—in other words randomly—to Thebes’ seven gates. Eteocles, in turn, draws seven lots to post seven defenders. By drawing lots, he entrusts the outcome to the gods. If the gods smile, the matchups will be favourable. If the gods turn away, the matchups will be unfavourable. Through the crack that is probability and chance, the gods reveal their intent.

I follow Fritz-Gregor Hermann’s conjecture that a stage direction instructing Eteocles to draw lots on stage was lost in transmission. Hermann’s conjecture solves the problem of the tenses, as Eteocles shifts between the future, perfect, present, and aorist when announcing the defenders. Before, commentators were divided: some thought he decided the postings prior to the shield scene. Others thought he decides during the shield scene. And yet others thought he decided some before and some during.

If Eteocles draws lots on stage he can easily shift between tenses because he can be speaking before he draws the lot (“I will announce the winner”), as he’s drawing the lot (“I see the winner is”), or after he’s seen the lot (“A winner has been chosen”). Not only does the conjecture rehabilitate the shield scene, rebuked for being static, but it also heightens the suspense. Drawing lots is dramatic in itself, a device Aeschylus would revisit in the Oresteia.

Do the random matchups favour Eteocles? In aggregate, yes. Take the first gate, where the attacker shouts out impieties. Eteocles just happens to draw a defender who is “a noble man who honours the throne of Reverence (503).” Or, take the fourth gate where the attacker bears an image of Typhon on his shield. By a strange synchronicity, Eteocles draws a defender who has Zeus—Typhon’s slayer—emblazoned on his shield. Eteocles, pleased at this stroke, invokes Hermes, the god of luck, saying: “Hermes, by divine reason has matched this pair (625).” Through the crack in randomness, the gods reveal their will.

Additional subjective cues hearten Eteocles. There’s the enemy’s disarray. Their morale is so low that they prepare their obituaries. One of their captains says: “I’m going to die.” Dark omens hang over them. They harangue one another. Contrast this with the chorus of Theban women, who function as a barometer of morale within the city. They start by singing the fall of Thebes. But, by the first stasimon, they sing the ode to joy. From the matchups to the unfolding action, Eteocles has subjective reasons to believe.

Eteocles also has objective reasons to believe. With seven attackers, seven defenders, and seven gates, the worst-case scenario is buried deep in the odds. The worst-case scenario happens if he confronts his brother at the seventh gate. At the final gate, substitutions would no longer be possible, as all the captains are posted. Kindred blood would spill. It’s the worst-case scenario because there’re rituals to purify spilt blood, but no rituals to purify spilt kindred blood.

We can use this play to prove the theory of risk theatre because, with seven attackers, seven defenders, and seven gates, all the possible permutations of the attackers and defenders fall under the rules of probability. When Birnam Wood came to Dunsinane Hill, we felt it was a low-probability, high-consequence event, but failed to quantify it. When the detective on the trail of regicide finds out that he himself was the regicide, we felt it was a low-probability, high-consequence event, but failed to quantify it. Because of Seven’s unique construction, it’s the one play in the entire canon where we may calculate the odds of what did, and did not happen. With these odds, we may prove the risk theatre hypothesis. Let’s do math.

Mathematically, the likelihood of a compound event is the product of its individual probabilities. The odds of rolling snake-eyes, or two ones on six-sided dice, is 1:36, or 1:6 * 1:6. On that analogy, the odds of the worst-case scenario are 1:49, the product of Polyneices’ odds (1:7) and Eteocles’ odds (1:7) of going to the final gate. The probability of the worst-case scenario happening is exceedingly low, about 2%. Most of the time—in fact, 48 out of 49 times—the worst case scenario is averted. Of course, Aeschylus doesn’t dramatize what happens most of the time, but the lowest-probability, highest-consequence event. And that is exactly what risk theatre theory predicts.

If 1:49 odds aren’t enough to entice you, if you say, “I need, at minimum, 1:1000 odds to be convinced that risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action,” then I offer you this. The odds of the brothers meeting at the seventh gate are 1:49, to be sure, but that figure hardly reflects the chance of all the matchups taking place exactly as they did. The play, argues Gilbert Murray and others, is structured so that the matchups from gates one to six bolster Eteocles’ confidence with the result that, when he falls, he falls from a greater height. The play would be less if the captain with the Typhon device encounters anyone but the captain bearing Typhon’s slayer. The question we need to ask, then, is: what are the odds of all the matchups taking place exactly as they did? This fascinating question has not been asked until today.

According to the law of permutations, the formula to find how many unique arrangements there are with seven captains at seven gates is seven factorial (7!) or 7 * 6 * 5 * 4 * 3 * 2 * 1, which equal 5040. Since there are seven attacking and seven defending captains, to find out how many unique pairings exist at seven gates, multiply 5040 by 5040. With seven gates, seven attackers, and seven defenders 25,401,600 permutations are possible. The odds, therefore, of Eteocles being raised up from gates one to six only to be struck down at gate seven are 25,401,599:1 against. Aeschylus has transformed the fated outcome, known to all, into an exceedingly improbable event. This is exactly what the theory of risk theatre predicts.

If Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill couldn’t convince you, if the uncanny reunion of Oedipus with the Corinthian messenger and the shepherd couldn’t convince you, then I hope today’s reading convinces you that the function of tragedy is to dramatize low-probability, high-consequence risk events. I give you over twenty five million reasons to believe.

This concludes my reading. Tragedy starts with a bet. An all-in bet with much at stake. It’s a good bet with a high likelihood of success. But the hero’s expectations are dashed when, against all odds, the unexpected happens. Tragedy functions by suppressing the subjective odds of the fated event happening so that, when it happens, the audience is dumbstruck. Fate suppressed rages and explodes.

To take risk theatre from page to stage, I founded the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy with Langham Court Theatre, one of Canada’s oldest and most respected theatres. Every year, winners receive over $11,000 in cash and a trip to Victoria which culminates in a workshop and staged reading. Congratulations to Brooklyn playwright Gabriel Jason Dean for winning the inaugural competition with his play In Bloom, a story of a well-meaning journalist who crosses the line. The website is at risktheatre.com.

Risk theatre is inaugurating a new tragic age in drama and literature that will rival fifth century Athens and the English Renaissance. Aeschylus’ Seven leads the charge as risk theatre’s paradigm play. “Risk” dominates today’s headlines and, to understand risk, we return to the ancients who began by dramatizing the consequences of what happens when more things happen than what we think will happen.

Risk theatre is literary theory’s finest hour in the 21st century because it recalls something that has been forgotten so long, namely, that risk is the dramatic pivot of the action. I challenge you to use it on all your favourite works, whether they’re novels, history, biography, opera, or films, and I promise you you’ll never read a work of literature the same way. Please tell everyone about this bold new tool of interpretation and ask your local library to carry my book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Review copies are available at Classical JournalAmerican Drama and Theatre (JADT), and The Bryn Mawr Classical Review. An audiobook version, performed by Greg Patmore of Coronation Street, is also available.

Thank you, and welcome to the new tragic age.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

When Genius Failed: A Risk Theatre Reading of Sophocles’ OEDIPUS REX

Clearihue Building A206

February 3, 2020

University of Victoria


When Genius Failed: A Risk Theatre Reading of Sophocles’ Oedipus rex

A Presentation to Laurel Bowman’s GRS 320 Greek Tragedy Class

Most tragedies are one and done. Have you heard of Antiphon’s Andromache? I didn’t think so. Some plays, such as Norton and Sackville’s Gorboduc from 1561, have been produced many times. But they don’t enter the canon. Other plays enter the canon, but languish on the fringes as historical curiosities. Friedrich Schiller’s 1782 play, The Robbers, is remembered today as an example of the “Storm and Stress” art movement. Then there’re the colossuses: Sophocles’ Oedipus rex, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Miller’s Death of a Salesman. They draw evergreen audiences. Court Theatre in Chicago just staged Oedipus to rave reviews. It featured a powerhouse translation by classicist Nicholas Rudall, a dazzling, all-white scenic design, and a chorus that walked amongst the audience. Of the colossuses, the oldest is Oedipus, and being oldest, the most robust. It will outlast Salesman and perhaps Macbeth. Here’s the question: how did Sophocles create a play to remember?

Has anyone been to a magic show, seen Criss Angel or David Copperfield perform? At these shows, there’re those who come for the entertainment and those who come to see how the magic works, seeking the soul of magic. If you’ve ever wanted to grasp soul of drama, listen carefully. We’re going to reveal the secrets of Sophocles’ magic. We start by exploring how he’s unified the action into a whole.

If we look at the play from the characters’ perspective, we would have to conclude there’s no rhyme or reason behind the action. The chorus doesn’t get what’s going on. At one point, they ask: “Why should I dance? (984)” Since the play is part of the ancient liturgy and the chorus dances to honour god, if they ask why they’re dancing, they’re really saying: “This is so confusing, I don’t get it.” Characters don’t do any better. Jocasta, watching the events unfold, concludes that the action proceeds at random. “It’s all chance,” she says, “chance rules our lives.” She’s wrong and pays the price.

We don’t want to be like Jocasta, so we look for telltale signs of Sophocles’ dramatic technique. In the Odyssey, Homer records an older variant of the Oedipus myth. When Odysseus recounts his visions of the underworld, he says:

I saw the beautiful Epikaste [Jocasta], Oidipodes’ [Oedipus’] mother

who in the ignorance of her mind had done a monstrous

thing when she married her own son. He killed his father

and married her, but the gods soon made it all known to mortals. (11.721-274)

Compare this to Sullivan’s recent review of Court Theatre’s Oedipus in the Chicago Sun-Times. She says:

Even after he’d murdered his father and slept with his mother, King Oedipus still could have changed his missile-like trajectory toward damnation. All he needed to do was stop asking questions. End his relentless pursuit of self-knowledge. (November 18, 2019)

This is different than Homer’s account where the gods tell all. Perhaps Sophocles’ magic is that he dramatizes Oedipus sinking the ship by asking too many questions?

Let’s see if the text bears this out. The play’s action progresses interview by interview. Oedipus is a detective, interviewing witnesses to break through in the cold case of the forgotten regicide. One of the interviewees is the prophet Tiresias. Since he’s a prophet, he knows. But he doesn’t want to rain on Oedipus’ parade. He says:

Just send me home. You bear your burdens,

I’ll bear mine. It’s better that way,

please believe me. (364-366)

Oedipus would do well to heed his warning. But he presses on. Then he interviews Jocasta, who’s figured it out. She doesn’t have the heart to tell him. She implores him to stand down, saying:

Stop—in the name of god,

if you love your own life, call off this search!

My suffering is enough. (1162-1164)

Oedipus would do well to heed her warning. But he presses on, saying, “Listen to you? No more. I must know it all (1169).” In the final interview, the shepherd implores him to stop, saying: “No—god’s sake, master, no more questions! (1280)” Oedipus would do well to heed his warning. But he presses on. All is lost as the truth comes out.

The text confirms Sullivan’s observation that Oedipus asks too many questions. But it’s hard to say: “Sophocles has created an immortal masterpiece by using the device of interrogation.” Is the interrogation part of a larger, overarching dramatic technique?

Let’s compare this sequence with one from another play. Long ago, in all the schools, they taught this play. Maybe they still do today. The play is Julius Caesar. In this play, everyone warns Caesar to stay at home. Take a sick day. The soothsayer says: “Beware the Ides of March.” The haruspex inspects the sacrificial animal: oh no, the heart is missing! His wife has nightmares of Caesar’s statue bleeding. Spirits walk the streets. The sky rains blood. Graves yield their dead. But Caesar really wants to go to the Capitol. The first time he’s told to stay at home he says:

I rather tell thee what is to be fear’d

Than what I fear; for always I am Caesar.

The second time they say, “Caesar, stay at home!” he says:

Caesar shall forth, the things that

threaten’d me

Ne’er look’d but on my back; when they shall see

The face of Caesar, they are vanished.

The third time they say, “Caesar, stay at home!” he says:

Cowards die many times before

their deaths;

The valiant never taste of death but once.

The final time they say “Caesar, stay at home!” he says:

I am as constant as the northern star,

Of whose true-fix’d and resting quality

There is no fellow in the firmament.

Do you see a similarity between Oedipus and Caesar? They both raise the stakes by ignoring the warnings. As the warnings pile up, Sophocles and Shakespeare telegraph to the audience: “Stay tuned, something explosive’s about to happen!” The dramatic technique of both masters is to make risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action. By risk they blow up their heroes.

Tragedians make risk the dramatic pivot of the action because risk entertains. Consider games of chance: in casinos, why do spectators crowd around the no-limit tables? They do so because such games elicit two powerful emotions: anticipation and apprehension. Anticipation for what the gambler will wager and apprehension for how the gambler will blow up. Spectators of tragedy are the same. They feel anticipation for what the hero will wager and apprehension for how the hero will blow up.

Think of tragic heroes as gamblers who wager something other than money. In tragedy, cash isn’t legal tender. Human values are legal tender. Loman, in Death of a Salesman wagers his dignity for the American Dream. Faust, in Doctor Faustus, wagers his soul for world domination. Macbeth wagers compassion, or the milk of human kindness, for the crown. What human asset does Oedipus lay down? When he struts onto the stage and his opening line is: “You all know me, the world knows my fame: I am Oedipus (8-9),” you know he values his reputation more than all the money in the world. Accordingly, he stakes his reputation, betting all-in that he can solve the riddle of the regicide. Each time Tiresias, Jocasta, and the shepherd tell him to fold, he doubles down: his reputation is at stake. And so, as he drives up the stakes, the audience feels apprehension that he’s going to blow.

How does he blow up? Let’s look at his background. Before he was born, the oracle tells Laius, the king of Thebes, not to have children: his son will be a patricide. Laius, however, having had a child, binds the baby’s feet together and orders the shepherd to expose it. The shepherd, however, relents and hands it over to a herdsman. The herdsman brings it from Thebes to Corinth where the childless king and queen adopt it. When Oedipus comes of age, he hears rumours he’s adopted. He asks the oracle, but the oracle, instead of answering, tells him he’ll kill his father and marry his mother. Fearing the oracle, he departs Corinth still believing he’s from Corinth. On his travels, he gets into a road rage incident and kills Laius, his real father. Then he dispatches the sphinx and receives in reward the hand of Jocasta, the dowager queen. Oedipus has two identities. He’s at the same time a son of Corinth where Polybus and Merope are his parents and a son of Thebes where Laius and Jocasta are his parents. He blows up when he reconnects with his Theban identity, learning that fate walks faster than a man can run.

Sophocles has a problem: if Oedipus is so clever, why hasn’t he figured it out? He knows the oracle. He knows he’s killed a man his father’s age and married a woman his mother’s age. Sophocles moves to insulate Oedipus from his Theban heritage. He misinforms Oedipus: a false report goes out that many brigands murdered Laius. Oedipus was travelling alone. So it couldn’t have been him. Not only that, to confirm his identity with moral certainty, Sophocles arranges it so that Oedipus has to meet two people he hasn’t seen in years and at the same time. The first of the two is the Corinthian messenger. The messenger is the only one who can confirm Oedipus is adopted because he’s also the herdsman who brought Oedipus to Corinth. But he lives far away and, because the king and queen of Corinth treat Oedipus as their own, has no reason to tell Oedipus. The second of the two is the shepherd. The shepherd is the only one who can confirm Oedipus killed Laius because he’s the sole surviving eyewitness of the murder. He’s in no rush to tell because he values his life. The shepherd is also the only one who can confirm the child of Laius and Jocasta survived because he was also the servant charged with exposing the babe. His memory’s going though, and he needs the messenger to jog his recollection. By solving one problem, Sophocles introduces another: how does he reconnect these three figures—Oedipus, the messenger, and the shepherd—separated by time and distance?

He reconnects them through the magic of risk. Risk connects because it supersizes you. Risk makes you bigger, larger than life. You touch more things, and more things touch you. Here’s an example from the world of finance. Let’s say you have a basket of diverse investments. You have stocks in Thailand where a young demographic powers the economy. You have Russian bonds. This is like money in the bank, as sovereign states have this thing called the printing press, so they never default. You have acres of undeveloped beachfront in Mexico. It’s going to jump in value when the rezoning permit comes through. Your investments are nominally unconnected in type and geography.

Then the unexpected happens. Out of nowhere the Thai government floats the baht, taking it off the US dollar peg. The baht falls 50% and Thai stocks 75% for a combined loss of nearly 90%. Then, the rezoning permit on your Mexican acreage doesn’t come through. You were waiting on an environmental assessment and the only person who could sign got eaten by a lion while on safari. If that wasn’t enough, Russia suddenly defaults on its debt. Despite the adversity, you hang on. After five years, Russia starts paying back its debt, Thai stocks bounce back, and the rezoning permit comes in. You’re golden.

Let’s replay this simulation and add risk. You leverage your 1 million dollars of assets to borrow 28 million. You reinvest the borrowed money. Now, with 1 million of your own money, you control 29 million dollars’ worth of Thai stocks, Mexican land, and Russian bonds. You’re leveraged up 28:1. You’re supersized. Now, when the Thai government floats the baht and your Thai stocks get hammered, your lenders come knocking. They want their money back ASAP. You sell your stocks at a 90% loss. But that’s not enough. There’s the Mexican land holdings. But remember, the rezoning permit hasn’t come through. As it is, you only get 50 cents on the dollar. You need to sell your bonds, another nominally unconnected asset. But Russia has just defaulted. Good luck finding a buyer. Now you’re selling your personal assets: your principal residence and your kids’ college fund. But word’s gotten out you’re having a fire sale. Congratulations, superstar, you’ve just blown up. Risk has connected many nominally unconnected events.

What do events in Thailand, Mexico, Russia, and a lion eating a permit officer have in common? They have as much in common as the murder of a king, the plague, an unexpected visitor from Corinth, and a man running away from home. Things happen, as Jocasta says, by chance. They’re unrelated. But when you take on risk, you connect them. From the junk mail filter blocking a critical message to the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, when you wager all-in, everything’s significant because you’re larger than life. Consider this: if you take no risk, you become small fries, lose touch, become disconnected from the world. But if you take on infinite risk, you will have become the world, you will have become connected to it all, because now everything matters. Risk makes you a clay god, omnipresent, but not omnipotent.

Apart from some details, the story of how risk connected unconnected events actually happened. In 1994 two economics Nobel Prize winners founded a hedge fund called Long-Term Capital Management or LTCM. Since they were so smart, they leveraged up 28:1. How could genius fail? With 5 billion of real assets, they controlled 140 billion in borrowed assets. Though their trading strategy consisted of buying and selling mispriced assets where the profit was perhaps 1% of the trade, when you’re leveraged up 28:1, that’s still a lot of money. 1% profit on 140 billion dollars is 1.4 billion. A 1.4 billion return on your original principle of 5 billion is almost 30%. Where can you make 30% year after year?

Warnings came in that they were taking too much risk. They were called out for “picking up nickels in front of a bulldozer.” But, like Caesar and Oedipus, they ignored the warnings. Did their detractors have Nobel Prizes? As cracks appeared in Thailand and Russia, their lenders started calling their loans. But they couldn’t pay. The fire sale had started. Then it cascaded: their lenders couldn’t pay their depositors. It was financial Armageddon. The global economic system was going down. Market participants prayed for divine intervention. Then, just like in the play, the deus ex machina appeared, played by Alan Greenspan, chair of the Federal Reserve. Out of the heavens, he showered money. Everyone was saved, only to be taken down in the Great Recession ten years later, when leverage blew up the housing market. If you’re looking for a riveting book on how black hole risk is the great connector, read journalist Lowenstein’s classic: When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management.

How does Sophocles get Oedipus to risk all? It’s not natural. We’re normally risk averse. Why go for a home run when you can get by with a hit? In the game of football, why throw a Hail Mary when you can get a first down? But when you’re down and the clock winds down, it’s safer to throw the interception-prone Hail Mary because if you don’t you’ll definitely lose. How does Sophocles wind down the clock? Notice anything else different between Homer and Sophocles’ take on the Oedipus myth?—no plague in Homer. Sophocles puts in a plague to get Oedipus to throw risk to the wind. They’re all dying. Now Oedipus has no choice but to throw a Hail Mary. It’s no coincidence that tragedians set their plays during insurrection, civil war, collapsing dynasties, and heaven raining fire. Outlier events encourage risk taking. When the world burns, risk’s enticements more than compensate for its blandishments.

Let’s go back to Oedipus. Oedipus raises the stakes not by leveraging greenback dollars, but, as we’ve discussed, by asking questions. Like the founders of LTCM, he can up the ante because he’s the smartest person in the room: he has a Nobel prize in defeating sphinxes. When Oedipus questions Tiresias, Tiresias tells him to stand down. But he refuses to stand down and dares to question Tiresias’ prophetic authority. By raising the stakes, he gets Tiresias to reveal how two unrelated events—the riddle of the plague and the riddle of Oedipus’ identity—share a common denominator. Risk connects.

Next, Oedipus raises the stakes by questioning Jocasta. Jocasta reveals that she knew the oracle that their son would be a patricide. Oedipus reveals that he knew the oracle that he would be a patricide. Oedipus also reveals he killed a man who would have been his father’s age the same time Laius was slain. Because he’s raising the risk, he connects himself with seemingly unrelated events: the riddle of the plague and the murder of Laius. Risk connects.

Then, despite plaintive, sorrow-bearing objections from Jocasta, when the Corinthian messenger comes, he continues the torrent of questions. Most of the time, the arrival of a random messenger would have no bearing on the ruler’s identity. The messenger would have come, told Oedipus he’s inherited the Corinthian throne, and left. But, by raising the stakes, he connects the messenger with his destiny. When questioned, the messenger reveals that many years ago, he had saved Oedipus, bringing him from Thebes to Corinth. Risk connects.

Finally the shepherd comes. They clamour for Oedipus to stop. The fate of Laius and Jocasta’s babe should have nothing to do with Oedipus, but, by raising the stakes, he connects his fate with the shepherd. If Oedipus hadn’t of raised the stakes, the shepherd wouldn’t have said: “Would that on that day I let you die on Mount Cithaeron as food for the dogs and the carrion birds.” Risk connects.

Just as LTCM bound by risk unrelated events in Thailand, Russia, and markets all over the world, so too, Oedipus bound by risk the oracles, the riddle of the plague, the murder of the king, and the actions of the shepherd and the messenger. If you still have any doubts about how risk is the great connector, consider whether a day delay in the mail can lead to two suicides instead of a wedding. It shouldn’t. But what happens when you bind by risk the rays of all the world’s vertices? Ask Romeo and Juliet. They will tell you.

Oedipus has withstood the test of time because, of the tragedies amongst, it best fulfils drama’s mandate to simulate risk. Sophocles’ dramatic technique is to seek and destroy Oedipus through risk. Sophocles single-mindedly devises the setting, characterization, and action for one purpose: to raise the stakes. A plague is a risk-on setting. Oedipus’ character is built to go big or go home: “I’m Oedipus, my wit is of the legends. You have a riddle? I’ll solve it, heaven be damned!” The action incites risk. The characters say: “For god’s sake, stop!” Oedipus replies: “No, no, thrice no!” Risk fills us with wonder and awe, because it reveals a gap in our nature: when we’re most confident, we’re in the gravest danger.

To illustrate how risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action, we’ve used my new theory of drama called “risk theatre.” Theory is critical, as without the eye of theory, the meaning of drama lies in the dark. The chorus sees what’s happening but can’t make sense of it. “Why should I dance?” it asks. Jocasta looks around and concludes: “It looks like it’s happening through chance. There’s no meaning.” With theory, we achieve a higher understanding. Theory imbues drama with human significance.

Unlike my competitors’ theories, which are so complex no one can come to an agreement on the meanings of their key terms, my method is as easy as A, B, and C.  First, find the human quality that the hero lays down as a stake. Is it dignity, reputation, the soul, or life? Second, find the desired outcome of the bet. Is it a kingdom, the act of revenge (common in revenge tragedies), or a cure for cancer? Third, find how the playwright drives up the stakes to trigger an unexpected low-probability, high-consequence outcome. I challenge you to use the theory of risk theatre on all your favourite works, whether it’s drama, novel, history, opera, or biography, and I guarantee you that you’ll never look at literature the same way again.

You hold in your hand my book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy, the result of thirteen years of research. The book has launched the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy, hosted by Langham Court Theatre. Faculty and students at UVic have entered—and placed—as well as over 200 playwrights from 11 countries including former Soviet republics. We’re inaugurating a new tragic age, one that will rival fifth century Athens and the English Renaissance. Spread the word on this twenty first century grassroots art movement, based in Victoria. The contest website is at risktheatre.com. Follow me at facebook.com/edwincharleswong. A transcript of this talk is available on my blog at melpomeneswork.com/oedipus. 

Why should you listen to this risk theatre theory? Do you know why Darwin’s remembered today? If you thought “evolution,” that’s wrong. Many people at that time were talking about evolution. Darwin’s remembered because he came up with the mechanism of natural selection which explained how evolution works. So too, many people have talked about heroes blowing up. What I’ve given you, however, is the mechanism called risk that explains how they blow up. Heroes, by taking on delirious risks draw together people, places, and things into the singularity of dramatic action.

In risk theatre, it’s not error or a tragic flaw. It’s risk. As a risk taker, Oedipus played out his hand brilliantly and played to win. There was a plague. He had to save the city. Not only that, he was putting to practice the mandate to “know thyself.” These very words “know thyself” were inscribed over the doorway of Apollo’s temple in Delphi where the oracle spoke to Oedipus. But Oedipus, in seeking to know himself, loses all. What then, is the moral of the tale?

The moral is that the we, insubstantial creatures of a day, can be great when we dare to be great. Though lacking means, when we throw risk to the wind, we approach heaven on equal terms. Though we are killed by death, when we wager all-in, we become the measure of all things. Though risk strikes us down and blows us up, not even the gods can sing the tales of glory that Oedipus sang, that Faustus sang, that the Duchess of Malfi sang, that John Proctor sang, that Caesar sang, that Joan of Arc sang, that all the mortal stars sang. Tragedy has given us the Oedipuses, the Faustuses, and the other colossuses of human nature so that when we are struck down, we say in a still small voice: “It is not to me alone that this fate has come, I go to join the parade of heroes who have overcome the smallness of their existence by the greatness of their daring.” In the coming tragic age, the highest type of individual will be the one who is in love with risk, who would willingly blow up a thousand times for the thrill of it all, the individual who says with Faustus: “Had I as many souls as there be stars, I’d give them all for Mephistopheles.” In this coming age, dare to be great in all that you do. You will be the greatest generation the world has seen.

Don’t read drama like the chorus, who doesn’t get it. Don’t read drama like Jocasta, who sees only random chance. All of drama is a dramatization of risk. That’s why there’s two dramatic forms. Tragedy to dramatize downside risk. And comedy to dramatize upside risk.

Thank you.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.